In this week’s ‘Ask A Wine Pro’ post, we’re tackling a question that we run into all the time – or rather, five common misconceptions surrounding this elusive topic.
Before we tackle the common misconceptions, let’s get educated.
Sulfite noun a salt of sulfurous acid, containing the anion SO32−
Huh? Here are the important bits of information in plain English:
- Sulfites develop naturally as a by-product of fermentation, and natural sulfites are found in wine, beer and cheese.
- Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) (included in ‘sulfites’) is what winemakers add to wine. It acts as a preservative and is added to wine for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. This small addition keeps your wine from browning and oxidizing.
- For the same reason, sulfites are used in the production of dried fruits, cheese, jams, pickles, olives and a lot more.
Here are the five false facts that we hear about sulfites most often:
1. Sulfites give me a headache
[Likely] Negative. Only about 1% of the population suffers from sulfite allergies. If you happen to fall into that 1%, your symptoms will show up in 15-30 minutes of oral exposure, and often include issues like hives or cramps. If you get a headache later that night or the next day there are many other culprits more likely making your head hurt (alcohol, histamines, tannins…).
Asthmatics are at a higher risk for sulfite sensitivity and should keep that in mind when consuming wine.
2. Sulfites in red wines give me a wine headache
We already touched on headaches, so are you ready for another shocker? White wine typically has more sulfites added than red wine. Less sulfur is needed to protect red wine thanks to things like tannin and malolactic fermentation.
If you really think sulfites are causing you health problems and/or pain, check out this list of sulfite containing foods to see if you experience the same symptoms when eating any of these: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731
Ex: dried fruits contain 10x more sulfites than wine!
3. Organic wines don’t contain sulfites
Depends on the country.
The definition of an organic wine in Europe simply means that the wine is made with organic grapes. Their certification bodies do not control what happens in the winery, and sulfites are still added to preserve the wine. That being said, the amount of sulfur dioxide allowed in the vineyard is typically 30% less than conventional farming, but that depends on the certification body.
You should note that European winemakers can add sulfites in the winery and they are not required to label their wines with “contains sulfites” like US winemakers must.
Organic wine is legally defined in a few countries like the USA and Australia. Here, organic does in fact mean that the wine is made without the addition of SO2. If you really want to avoid (*added) sulfites, look for wine certified organic by the USDA NOP.
4. Sulfites are unnatural and shouldn’t be added to wine
Let’s not forget that sulfites are naturally occurring. If you don’t want sulfites in your wine, you’d need a miracle because sulfites are a natural byproduct from the grapes during the fermentation process. As for the added sulfites, small doses of S02 help preserve your wine while also keeping grapes healthy, keeping wine fresh in the bottle and helping to keep wineries clean. Plus, did you know that sulfites have been used since ancient Roman times?!
5. *I can buy 100% sulfite free wine
You cannot. Let’s revisit the definition, where “Sulfites develop naturally as a by-product of fermentation”. No matter how the wine is made, wine will have inherent sulfites, though the amount is quite small. If you want your wine to be free of sulfites, you can carry around one of these sticks that I came across at the Bon Appetech conference.
If you still prefer to drink without the added S02 (and many people do, geeks and novices alike), check out this great list or ask your local wine shop about their natural wine selection: http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/03/27/top-5-wines-without-sulfites/
Have a question you want us to answer? Leave it in the comments below, or for those who prefer to remain anonymous shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheers!